Reinvent the mobility idea

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 11 June 2015

When I think of the government's newly cleared Auto Fuel Policy, the image of Nero fiddling while Rome burnt comes to mind. The document apparently sets the roadmap to meet clean air targets in Indian cities -- in other words, show how to secure mobility and public health. Instead, all it reflects -- in the worst way -- the ostrich-like mindset of government scientists, planners and in particular, Indian industry captains and their cheerleaders. The document digs its head into the mud, pretending the problem of air pollution does not exist; even if it does, a tiny bit of fiddling and tinkering will make it go away.

The authors call this approach "pragmatic": a horrible word as it translates into doing little or nothing. What this means in this case is that most cities, already spluttering in smog, will get no relief till 2005 -- when the kind of fuel and technology big cities now have will be made available to their smaller-sized kin. This, Euro ii technology, which will be made available in cities like Guwahati or Sholapur in 2005, was made mandatory, because of Supreme Court orders in Delhi in 2000.

The 11 'more' polluted cities, identified by government for special treatment, will get nothing substantially new till 2010 -- 8 years from now, when Euro iv compliant technology would become mandatory. Hesitantly, these cities will trundle from Euro ii -compliance to an incrementally better Euro iii technology in 2005. It is well understood in pollution circuits that there is really not much difference in these two levels. The real technology jump comes with Euro iv compliance. But understand this: while Europe is introducing Euro iv in 2004, our policy makers are giving it to Indian cities only in 2010. Why? Don't Indians deserve clean air?

Such an attitude becomes even more annoying when we realise that most automobile companies are already capable of manufacturing Euro iii -compliant vehicles. They are busy selling "cleaner" cars in Europe, where, it seems, people deserve better. When the Supreme Court advanced the deadline for automobile technology by almost 5 years in 1999, vehicle-makers and fuel suppliers scrambled and met the new standards. Therefore, why should policy efforts remain so miserly and small-minded? Why should policy not push the pace of technology?

The fact is there is a colossal problem on our roads. Large and dirty vehicles, poisoning the air and destroying human lives. But it isn't so mindboggling that alternatives can't be thought of. We have the advantage of being the latecomers in the auto-fuel race. We can afford to configure a new pathway, so that the dream of mobility in India does not become a nightmare.

We know that the western world is cleaning up its vehicles -- each new generation becomes a little better. But at each step, a new pollution challenge confronts its technologists. Modern and sophisticated technology comes always a step behind the problem it creates. Set to go ahead of the problem, it keeps chasing it.

In the last 15 years or so, the issue of particulates -- tiny toxins that penetrate our lungs and blood circulatory systems -- has taken centre-stage in pollution management. Challenged by this emerging phenomenon, vehicle and fuel technology innovated; it was widely accepted that the 2004-generation of vehicles in the western world would have licked this particular problem. But now scientists are discovering that as the emission-fuel technologies reduce the mass of particles, the size of the particles reduces and the number emitted goes up and not down. These particles are even smaller in size. Called nanoparticles (measured in the scale of a nanometre -- a billionth of a metre), these particles are not only difficult to measure, but also -- say scientists -- could be even more deadly since they easily penetrate human skin.

Therefore, the Indian Auto Fuel Policy should have underlined that the way of the future is to reinvent the transportation mindset to suit the needs of the newly industrialising countries. It should have stressed that we don't have to make the mistakes of the western world. We don't have to build cities on the imperative of private transport. We don't have to build pollution control on the basis of fitting after-treatment devices in cars and cleaning up the fuel. We don't have to be boldly timid, as the policy is.

We can determine new ways to the future city -- combining the convenience of mobility and economic growth with public health imperatives. Our way would combine the best of the new and the old. On the one hand, we will move, indeed leapfrog, to the best technologies of the western world, even before they adopt these, as the case may be. Therefore, if the alternative is to jumpstart to Euro iv or to move towards gaseous fuels, we will cut the umbilical cord with the past. For instance, by moving towards Compressed Natural Gas (cng), we jumped to Euro iv equivalent emissions in particulates. But the western world has not advanced towards cng as yet. It does not need to because its air is relatively clean and it can afford -- in terms of time and money -- an incremental roadmap. We must realise that moving fast and first will provide opportunities for industry to market its products -- cng vehicles are an emerging area of export from India, for instance.

On the other hand, we must reinvent the past as well so that we invest in public transport and mobility for all. Therefore, even as the whole world looks for little solutions to pollution and congestion, we must reinvent the answer. We must invent the 'idea' of mobility itself. But is this asking too much of fossilised government minds?

-- Sunita Narain

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.